Training experts have backed the Productivity Commission’s criticism of tightly prescribed skills courses and its proposal for graded qualifications.
The vocational education and training chapter in the commission’s five-year productivity review, Shifting the Dial, says training packages, documents that specify the skills required in narrowly defined occupations, and how they are combined and assessed, have had their day.
The report says training packages are too specific and take too long to develop, often passing their use-by date before students graduate.
It says the packages are unpopular, and that half of employers opt instead for unaccredited training, and that satisfaction levels are higher for informal than formal courses.
The commission says colleges need to focus on more generic and transferable skills. It also wants “better signalling” of graduates’ skills than the pass-fail approach of competency-based training.
“Proficiency grading” would encourage students to try harder, boost the status of VET and deliver better information to recruiters, the report says. It says that while Canberra should not mandate graded assessment, it should start laying plans for its adoption.
As a first step, the federal government should consult states and territories and examine how and where graded proficiency could be introduced, it says.
Federal Skills Minister Karen Andrews said all of the report’s recommendations were up for consideration. She said she was “not ruling anything in or out”, but any changes would involve stakeholder consultation.
Ms Andrews said the government’s immediate priority was to establish the Skilling Australians Fund announced in the May budget, and to review the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act.
Ruth Schubert, VET expert with the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute, said introducing graded assessment would not be hard for colleges. Many TAFEs already graded their students, she said. “It is a more accurate reflection of skill level, more nuanced than a black and white yes or no.”
Dr Schubert said training packages had become too narrowly focused on vocational outcomes. Most VET graduates work outside the areas in which they had trained, so the narrow focus was inappropriate and would become more so as automation transformed the labour market.
SkillsIQ, one of the six service organisations that develop training packages, said they needed to strike the right balance.
Chief executive Yasmin King said prescriptive approaches were easier to regulate, and overly generic qualifications ended up being “everything to no one”.
“Employers don’t want really broad,” she said. “They want flexible, but they don’t want broad.”
Ms King said generic qualifications would allow providers to deliver the cheapest electives, not the most appropriate ones. She said training packages took a long time to develop because endorsement was needed by every state and territory.
TAFE Directors Australia said training packages could never keep pace with the changing economy.
“Why not turn the problem on its head, and say we’ll make sure we train people with the capability to adjust?” chief executive Craig Robertson said.
He also backed the proposal for graded assessment, saying a “pass-fail competence” approach did not encourage students or teachers to strive for their best.
The Australian Council for Private Education and Training said graded assessment was not incompatible with a competency-based framework.
Chief executive Rod Camm said employers wanted to know how good graduates were, not whether they could do something.